WASHINGTON — Recently, in what amounted to a kind of cosmic Supreme Court hearing, two giant telescope projects pleaded for their lives before a committee charged with charting the future of American astronomy.
Either of the telescopes — the Thirty Meter Telescope, slated for the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile — would be roughly three times larger and 10 times more powerful than anything now on Earth. Working in concert, they could tackle deep questions about the cosmos. But they are hundreds of millions of dollars short of the money needed to build them.
Failure to build them, American astronomers say, would cede dominion over the skies to Europe, which is building its own behemoth observatory in Chile, and which will be available only to European researchers. The prospective builders fear an echo of a moment in the late 20th century when scientists in the United States lost ground in particle physics to European researchers, and never really recovered in producing path-making discoveries in that field.
“Europe is utterly indifferent to what the U.S. does,” said Matt Mountain, in a rousing introduction to the hearing, which was held in a low-ceilinged, windowless conference room on the ground floor of a National Academy of Sciences building here. Dr. Mountain is president of American Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages observatories for the government.
To add to the potential pain, he reminded the gathering, the European telescope will be ready in the late 2020s, at least three years before any American counterpart. That timing will allow Europe to draw even more scientific benefit from intervening projects like the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch next year, and the Vera Rubin Observatory, a smaller telescope in Chile. These will merely act as “finder-scopes” for the European Extremely Large Telescope, as it is called, Dr. Mountain noted, spotting phenomena that the larger telescope can then investigate and exploit.
“They are laying down a gauntlet to the U.S. community,” he said. “How will the U.S. community respond?”
The U.S. community was present in the form of a dozen astronomers who were sitting around an open square table that took up most of the conference room. They were the Panel on Optical and Infrared Observatories from the Ground, part of a larger effort known as the Decadal Survey, convened by the National Academy of Sciences every 10 years to set priorities for astronomy and give advice to the government on where to spend money.
Tim Heckman, a tall Johns Hopkins astronomer with a shock of white hair who is chair of the panel, sat at one end of the table, leading the questioning.
Over the course of the afternoon, astronomers from the two telescope projects took turns filing into the room to pitch their telescope dreams in a flurry of slide presentations, followed by questions from the panelists.
Dr. Mountain said that for the projects’ staffs, the hearings are like a lobster trap: “They have to get through this if they want to go to the next stage.”
This was the first and last chance the astronomers would have to plead their cases in public; the remainder of the year will be given to closed-door meetings and peer-reviewed reports, concluding next year in final recommendations for space- and ground-based astronomy.
A blessing by the academy of either or both telescope projects could open the door to money from the National Science Foundation, which has traditionally supported astronomy in the United States, but has yet to contribute to either endeavor.
David Charbonneau, a young, bushy-bearded astronomer from Harvard who asked many of the toughest questions, described the discussion as collegial and frank. “The astronomers were as candid as they could be,” he said.
Both telescopes are the dream products of cumbersome international collaborations anchored by U.S. universities or observatories. The Thirty Meter Telescope, named for the diameter of its primary light-gathering mirror, is borne of a joint effort of the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. The Giant Magellan would have an effective diameter of 25 meters; it is headquartered in Pasadena near the Carnegie Observatories, one of the founding members of the collaboration. By comparison, the upcoming European telescope is 39 meters in diameter, roughly the size of a basketball court.
The Thirty Meter Telescope, TMT for short, is not popular among some Hawaiians. Upset about the exploitation and degradation of the mountain, they have blocked construction crews from accessing Mauna Kea. The collaboration, now known officially as the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, has threatened to move to an alternate site in the Canary Islands. They haven’t done it yet: Mauna Kea is still a better site, they say.
“We were asked by you if our software was going to be late,” Gary Sanders, project manager for the telescope, said to the panelists at one point. “It’s not late.”
The telescope is “shovel ready, just not shovel accessible,” he added.
The testimony provided a rare look at the financial and managerial details of these ambitious projects, revealing that they will be more expensive than advertised over the last 20 years of development and promotion. The Thirty Meter Telescope collaboration has long floated a cost estimate of $1.4 billion. The figures released Tuesday put the cost at about $2.4 billion. The latest price tag for the Giant Magellan is now about $2 billion.
Under the deal being promoted by Dr. Mountain and his colleagues, about a third of the cost — $850 million for each telescope — would be provided by the National Science Foundation. As a result, the National Science Foundation would own one-third of the observing time on these telescopes, and would make it available to all American astronomers.
“We want people to come together to tackle big questions,” said Patrick McCarthy, director of the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz. His institution, with Dr. Mountain’s, brokered a deal between the two giant projects, formerly bitter competitors, to join forces as they seek enough money to be born.
In his own testimony, Tommaso Treu, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the TMT project, ticked off some of the questions that “the power of 2” — two telescopes — could address: Are we alone? What is the universe made of?
Even if the European telescope beats the American telescopes to the sky, plenty of science remains to be done: “They’re not going to clean out astronomy in three years,” Dr. Treu said.
When the discussion began, some panelists questioned whether there was enough money in the proposed operating budget to run the telescopes once they had been built. New telescopes usually need new instruments every few years as astronomers develop sharper and more ambitious ideas about what to do with the light they have so painstakingly collected from afar. Each new tool can cost $50 million or more.
“In a platform for innovation, I don’t want to put down an empty plate,” Dr. Charbonneau said.
Under questioning, the telescope collaborations also had to admit that they had not raised all the money needed to pay their own shares of the telescopes.
“How do we make a plan that closes?” Dr. Heckmann asked.
Dr. Charbonneau went on to address one of the elephants in the room: What if the Mauna Kea site was not feasible in the end, and the Thirty Meter observatory had to move to the Canary Islands? Were all the partners in the collaboration, which includes Canada, India, Japan and China in addition to Caltech and the University of California, still committed?
Dr. Sanders punted to Edward Stone, executive director of the Thirty Meter collaboration and an astrophysicist at Caltech. “The agreement is for Mauna Kea,” Dr. Stone said quietly. “Each member would have to agree to go to La Palma,” he said.
He added, “We’re not there yet.” Some of the partners were already willing to move the telescope, he said, but others wanted to wait and see what happened in Hawaii.
In January, a bill was introduced into both houses of Hawaii’s Legislature that would establish a reconciliation commission to mediate between protesters and the state. Its sponsors hope to “decouple” the dispute of Mauna Kea from broader conflicts over issues such as housing, education, health care and the preservation of Hawaiian culture, which linger from the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and its territory’s subsequent annexation by the United States. According to Dr. Stone, “quiet conversations” were being held with state leaders, telescope opponents and astronomers.
If the talks fail, Dr. Stone added, “I’m sure the partners will agree to go to La Palma.”
The La Palma site is lower in altitude than Mauna Kea, making it less desirable for observing some types of cosmic infrared radiation, but Dr. Sanders declared that the science they needed could be done from both sites: “Mauna Kea is a better site, and we want to go there.”
A final decision, Dr. Sanders added, was a few months away.
Dr. Sanders told the panel that he once had been a project scientist for the Superconducting Super Collider, which was canceled by Congress in 1993 and superseded by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which in 2012 discovered the long-sought Higgs boson. High-energy physics in the United States has never been the same.
“We are definitely second rate,” he said. “I mourn the kinds of things we could have done.”
The panelists adjourned without tipping their hands.
“Thank you for your frank responses,” Dr. Heckman said in conclusion. “It’s a big challenge. We understand that.”